DUCK SOUP: The Icarus Glitch

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham observed that, "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it." In this he was echoing the earlier and better known aphorism of Lord Acton, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."Such pronouncements are usually interpreted in reference to political power but their essential truth is more widely applicable. "Power," in the form of energy is equally corrupting.A chain saw taught me my first lesson on this subject back in the 70s. A power tool leverages control of massive physical objects: a single person can readily topple and limb a dozen two-hundred year old trees in a day. The ease and power intoxicate and I am certain I cut more trees on my land than I would have with a hand saw. If the task had been harder, I would have weighed each cut more carefully. Hindsight tells me I was corrupted by power.In the prose-poem Damage, writer Wendell Berry makes a similar observation about employment of a bulldozer to build a pond. The site was wrong, but the enormous power of the machine enabled sculpting of the land to permit impoundment. The pond failed. As Berry lamented, "The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge."We are so immersed in the perquisites of our power that negative effects remain hidden in plain view. The lifestyle we think of as "modern" is wholly an expression of unbounded power, and the effects ripple out to cause every form of pollution.(Pollution results when external chemical, thermal or electrical energy is applied to a system which cannot wholly utilize the input. Over-fertilizing a lawn, for instance, creates nutrient run-off -- only possible with imported fertilizer.)But pollution is merely the obvious, physical expression of our misguided might. There is an inward corruption as well -- a corruption of values -- a dimunition of responsibility. If power makes everything replaceable; getting it right the first time is devalued. If easy replacement renders everything disposable; nurture, conservation, maintenance and respect diminish. And as our individual power is multiplied a thousand-fold by the energy slaves at our command (light switches, autos, chain saws and all), we find ourselves mere cogs in the even more vastly empowered system. The behemoth of humanity's usurped power reduces the individual to insignificance.Thus, we have become more godlike than ever in our individual ability to wreak change and simultaneously more convinced than ever that our actions are meaningless. We can do whatever we choose, and the choice doesn't matter. Could there be a better formula for abuse?In the Greek myth, Icarus escaped with his Pop, Daedalus, by gluing feathers to his arms with wax and flapping like mad. Full of himself, Icky flew too near the sun. The wax melted, the feathers fell off, and he plunged to his death.The common interpretation of the Icarus tale involves hubris and the danger that a little knowledge will appear to be a lot. This is an important truth, but stopping there misses the larger one: any appropriation of external power skews a local system. Tapping of the solar energy stored in oil creates acid rain and smog. Tapping of stored stellar energy in uranium creates spent fuel rods which will be horrendously poisonous for 20,000 years.The wax available to Icarus was an external resource, as were the eagle feathers which afforded lift: power unavailable at the local level. He flew. He burned.Finding a path less reliant on external power is difficult for we who have been born in the fat center of a powerful culture, but there is a way. We can begin to avoid the Icarus Glitch by buying and investing locally, reducing our dependence on foreign and fossil fuels, and reusing, reducing and recycling. We can step back from consumption of externally created wares and decide that enough is enough. We can choose not to fly too near the sun, and find our highest reward in living here and now.Power may easily corrupt us, but we can also, and fairly easily, reject that power. Icarus tried and failed. We can succeed by failing to try.

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